FC Barcelona play host to Serie A leaders AC Milan tomorrow, as both sides look to book their place in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg at the San Siro, the tie remains wide open, and depending on the scoreline, Milan may not have to even win the match to progress. Barcelona have benefitted from the away goals rule once before under Guardiola after Andres Iniesta’s famous goal at Stamford Bridge, but they are yet to be eliminated because of them just yet. With a bit of luck, that scenario will not play any part tomorrow evening.
With a potential rematch of that infamous semi-final a distinct possibility, the match tomorrow is as difficult/as easy as it is going to get en route to the final. Sure, Milan were excellent last week, but on a larger, better maintained pitch they may live to regret the two clear-cut chances that they missed on Wednesday.
Max Allegri has been handed a boost ahead of tomorrow’s match with Alexandre Pato back in training and looking set to play some part in the tie, likely off the bench in the second half. Pato was excellent in the group stage against the Blaugrana, and if he has recovered sufficiently to play a part, then Guardiola will have reason to be concerned. The Brazilian’s direct pace and explosive acceleration has already led to him scoring one goal against the Catalans this season, and could easily lead to another tomorrow. At the very least, Pato’s trickery would at least require some attention from the Barca defense, thus opening up the space for in-form Zlatan Ibrahimovic to exploit. As awful as it sounds, I sincerely hope tomorrow comes too soon for Pato, purely because Robinho would start in his place.
In the first leg, it is safe to say that Robinho was appalling. He tracked back a little, but didn’t defend. He stayed forward, but didn’t attack; when the ball fell to him in the area just minutes in, he sent arguably the best chance of the game miles over the bar. If I were an AC Milan fan, I would blame Robinho, and Robinho entirely if Barcelona do progress, unless something drastic happens tomorrow of course. Ibrahimovic’s chance was also clear-cut, but under pressure from Puyol, on his weaker foot against one of World Football’s best 1-on-1 goalkeepers, you could understand why he didn’t score.
Aside from that, Milan threatened very little, which has been overlooked slightly by most people. Allegri kept Barcelona to a clean sheet after conceding five to them in the group stage, but there are no plaudits for Pep Guardiola after his team kept a clean sheet to improve upon the four goals conceded to Milan in the group stages. Perhaps that tells you more about the aspirations of each team than anything else.
Victor Valdes was the man who kept Ibrahimovic out last week, and he will start again tomorrow, looking to extend his run of consecutive clean sheets to four matches. If he keeps a clean sheet, I predict that Barcelona will go through; it is as simple as that. Milan are a great side, one of the best tactically and defensively, but what are the odds that they can hold Barcelona to two clean sheets in a season, let alone week. In fact, if anyone wants something to do, I will offer a prize* for the person who finds out the last team to keep Barcelona to two clean sheets in a season.
*Prize may not actually exist :P
Defensively, there are some decisions to be made, both with the number of defenders employed and with player selection. Does Pep go for a back-three or a back-four? Carles Puyol or Adriano Correia? There are many options available, but we have to trust that Pep will pick the one that is best suited to the players and to beat AC Milan. Personally, I would opt for a back-four of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol – the four players in the best current form, but Pep might just have a surprise lined up.
Sergio Busquets was terrific against Bilbao, and if he can replicate that performance tomorrow, I don’t think Milan would be able to keep up with the pace. The speed with which he distributed the ball with his first touch was staggering, not to mention the peripheral vision he displayed for each of those passes to reach their intended target. Busquets is fast developing into the ultimate midfield anchorman, and dare I say it, his importance to the team is increasing with the day. As Xavi struggles with a calf injury, Busquets could usurp the legendary midfielder to become Barcelona’s most important midfielder.
As mentioned, Xavi is doubtful for tomorrow’s match with a calf problem, although I doubt that a simple "problem" is enough to keep Xavi sidelined for the most important 90 minutes of the season. Unless there is a risk of him tearing his calf, I think he will start, whether it is with the aid of a painkilling injection or otherwise. Alongside him, Andres Iniesta should start in midfield rather than left-wing, although I can never be sure with Pep. Maybe Xavi will not start and we will see Cesc and Keita, you simply cannot be sure. I would like to see Thiago and Iniesta start for the second successive game, that partnership looked to have potential on Saturday, again, if they replicate their performance from Saturday, I doubt Milan would be able to cope.
Offensively, there is less to discuss. Lionel Messi will start centrally, and is likely to be supported by Alexis Sanchez, and probably Pedro. I agree with the calls to give Isaac Cuenca a shot, but ultimately, can we trust a guy who has made less than 20 appearances for the club to deliver the goods against AC Milan? I think that’s where Pedro’s experience and big-game record sets him apart. So long as it isn’t Tello or Iniesta on left-wing, I think Barcelona will be much better off compared to last week.
Barcelona are not only capable of progressing, but they could just as easily demolish AC Milan tomorrow night. However, I am still unsure that they will progress.
Predicted Line-up: Valdes; Alves, MASCHERANO, Pique, Puyol; Busquets, Cesc, Iniesta; Pedro, Alexis, Messi
Match Prediction: It’s gonna be nerve-wracking, but I think Barca will edge it 2-1